East Africa Through Doug Pitt's Lens

Doug Pitt has visited east Africa more than 30 times as part of his work with the nonprofit WorldServe International. See his visits through his camera lens.

by Lucie Amberg

Sep 2023

Photo taken in East Africa by Doug Pitt
Photo by Doug Pitt

Since 2006, Doug Pitt has visited east Africa more than 30 times as part of his work with the nonprofit WorldServe International. He often takes his camera along, and he loves to photograph the people he meets. He shared a few of his photos with us.

Maasai elder
Girl by a river in Mali
Teenage boy with elaborate white markings face
Photos by Doug Pitt

WorldServe International focuses on expanding access to clean water, sanitation, education and economic opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa. When WorldServe completes a project, it often organizes a dedication ceremony. “People will travel a couple of days—walking—to come to these ceremonial events because it’s such a big deal to have a community water source,” Pitt says. “There will be 400 or 500 people.” The events feature dancing, singing and plenty of eye-catching apparel, like the ostrich-feather mask worn by the Maasai elder pictured above (left).

Pitt photographed the girl by a river in Mali (middle). Her half-smile, black veil and radiant poise may remind you of the Mona Lisa—it’s why he calls this image “Mali Lisa.” But, he says, even this seemingly serene moment underscores the importance of WorldServe’s mission to provide clean water. “If I could show you other pictures of that river, it’s unreal,” he says. “People are washing their clothes in the mud, on the shore. They’re washing rugs and blankets, and they’re cooking. All this life is happening, and there’s trash and plastic everywhere. And all of a sudden this beautiful child was standing right there.”

Pitt says it’s not uncommon to encounter teenage boys with elaborate white markings on their faces (right). The markings indicate that they’re in the process of a rite of passage that includes circumcision and a 30-day period, during which the boys must go out on their own to prove that they can provide for themselves. “They’re trying to raise money,” Pitt says. “Trying to show that they can fend for themselves through hunting and getting money from tourists.”

Woman in east Africa photo
Woman with bag of grain
Photos by Doug Pitt

“We were at the gate crossing into Kenya. You have to stop so they can check your passport, and while you’re there, these ladies are selling their trinkets. The first time, I didn’t really understand what was happening, and all of a sudden there were 10 to 12 ladies, saying, ‘Buy this, buy this, buy this.’” He’d rolled down his car window, so he was trapped. “They were reaching in, and if you were to drive away, you’d hurt someone,” he says. “So finally we got them to step back. That’s when I photographed this lady." (Left) "I’ve had several people who’ve done this crossing and seen this photo tell me that they recognize her.”

Based on the way the bag is positioned around this woman’s head (right), Pitt says it likely holds grain, and he says it’s common to see women carrying coffee or even water the same way. It’s an ingenious solution, especially given the uneven terrain, but he’s learned that over time, this method of carrying items can have serious long-term health consequences. If those health issues become debilitating enough, it might even be culturally acceptable for the woman’s husband to shun her. 

Woman collecting water
Woman with baby and bucket of water
Young man in traditional clothing
Photos by Doug Pitt

This lovely moment (left) from a garden near Timbuktu, Mali, serves as another reminder of WorldServe’s work to expand access to water. Pitt says that this young woman was working alongside a little girl, who was probably her sister. “Imagine that you’re a little girl working, and you’re carrying these 30-pound buckets,” he says. “They make it work, but it’s tough.”

This photo (middle), taken just outside Arusha, Tanzania, brings WorldServe’s work to life. “One gallon of water is eight pounds,” Pitt says. “She’s holding a five-gallon bucket—40 pounds if it were full. Let’s say it’s 30 pounds. She’s also holding a 20-pound child, and she’s walked up a hill that’s maybe 40 or 50 feet. She’s walked over the ridge, and she’s going to walk down the ravine to get to the creek. She’ll walk back up, and then she’ll walk back down. She may do this three or four times every day. She’s going through all of this to get water from a creek that’s not clean.

His guides helped connect him with this young man (right), who was dressed in traditional clothing and willing to be photographed. “He hardly ever changed that expression, which is basically, ‘I’m going to punch you in the face,’” Pitt remembers. “But he was super cooperative, no matter how I asked him to turn or pose. At the end of the photo session, I offered him the equivalent of about $5 in Tanzania shillings. He shook me off and asked for $20 in shillings, and he deserved it. I like the shot, but I also like that he held his ground. I would have paid whatever he said.”